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Law Society seeks review of decision that cleared lawyer of overcharging

Disciplinary tribunal found Law Society had not proved a case of overcharging against Senior Counsel Alvin Yeo

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Senior Counsel Alvin Yeo (left) said he had no comments. A Law Society spokesman said that the High Court judge may, pursuant to the Legal Profession Act, make such orders as he or she thinks fit, including an order to set aside the determination of the disciplinary tribunal.

Singapore

The Law Society has filed an application on Tuesday for the High Court to review the DT's decision.

Gregory Vijayendran, Law Society president and Senior Counsel, said in response to The Business Times' queries: "The Law Society's review application is neither an appeal nor a show cause application to the Court of Three Judges in respect of the respondent (Mr Yeo). Instead, the court application seeks a review of the disciplinary tribunal's determination on questions as to its correctness, legality or propriety; alternatively, as to the regularity of the DT proceedings."

A spokesman for the Law Society said that the High Court judge may, pursuant to the Legal Profession Act, make such orders as he or she thinks fit, including an order setting aside the determination of the DT, and directing the DT to rehear and reinvestigate the complaint or matter, or directing the Law Society to apply to the Chief Justice (CJ) for the appointment of another DT to hear and investigate the complaint or matter.

Mr Yeo, when contacted by BT, said he would not make any comments.

The Court of Appeal judges - CJ Sundaresh Menon and Justices of Appeal Chao Hick Tin (before he was appointed Senior Judge) and Andrew Phang - had through the registrar of the Supreme Court sent a letter in July 2017 to the Law Society. It was made clear in the letter to the Law Society that by referring the matter for investigation, the judges "have not arrived at any conclusion as to whether or not there has been professional misconduct".

The letter recounted that the three judges had earlier in April 2017 informed the parties of a case in which Mr Yeo's client was a defendant that both the sums that were billed originally by WongPartnership and the sums that had since been agreed between the parties were objectively very high, and that this was a matter of concern because Mr Yeo's client had been found to lack capacity at the material time.

Initially, WongPartnership had tendered a bill of S$7.56 million to the Court of Appeal for determination. That amount was reduced to S$5.1 million after WongPartnership agreed to give a discount of 32.5 per cent.

The legal fees were for the work of Mr Yeo and his team, which grew from three to six lawyers (with nine other lawyers also called on to assist) over four-and-a-half years from late 2010 to mid 2015, acting in a series of legal proceedings for the client, who is unnamed but known to be an elderly woman from a prominent Singapore family.

The widow, in her 80s, had inherited about S$200 million and is expected to get another S$100 million from her late father's estate.

Her two sisters had applied to the Family Court under the Mental Capacity Act to have the widow declared to be lacking capacity to manage her assets and affairs. They wanted to be appointed as her deputies to act for her as they alleged that the widow's youngest daughter and son-in-law were unduly influencing the widow.

The application was opposed by Mr Yeo's client, her youngest daughter and son-in-law, but the Family Court having heard 11 expert medical witnesses' evidence made the declaration as sought and appointed the two sisters as deputies.

But the High Court dismissed the application in an appeal. When the matter went before the Court of Appeal, the widow was found to be mentally impaired and unfit to make decisions about her considerable wealth. Instead of her sisters, financial and legal professionals were appointed as deputies for the widow.

The widow had paid without question the S$7.12 million charged under 15 invoices from WongPartnership. An amount of S$436,300 not previously billed was added, making it a total of S$7.56 million when WongPartnership tendered the figure at the Court of Appeal's order for determination.

The widow's youngest daughter and son-in-law were ordered to pay the costs of the proceedings from the Family Court to the apex court, including part of the widow's legal fees.

They negotiated with WongPartnership, and the latter reduced the legal fees by 32.5 per cent to S$5.1 million, of which S$4.56 million to be paid by the couple while the widow was to foot the balance of S$542,500.

The Court of Appeal, upon learning about the original and discounted amounts, asked WongPartnership to furnish information on the circumstances in which its lawyers first met and then took instructions from the client; the basis on which WongPartnership charged; the steps taken by the law firm to determine that the client had been in a position to agree to the engagement of WongPartnership; and the discount that the law firm had agreed to following negotiations.

Subsequently, the judges referred the matter to the Law Society.

Mr Yeo faced charges of overcharging, with one alleging him of billing the widow S$7.56 million, and the other accusing him of claiming the reduced amount of S$5.1 million when the bill was tendered to the court.

He denied the charges. His defence included no intention to overcharge and there was no overcharging. Fellow senior counsel Lok Vi Ming was called as his expert witness, whose opinion was also that there was no overcharging.

According to the written decision of the DT issued on May 28, the two-member panel cleared Mr Yeo of overcharging after having considered the evidence and expert witnesses' opinions from the Law Society and the defence.

The DT had noted that the widow's case was complex because the Mental Capacity Act was new with no direct precedents available. The DT also found that she was determined to resist the appointment of deputies, so she was willing and had the means to pay for top lawyers.

The DT accepted that the widow's court-appointed deputies as well as her youngest daughter and son-in-law agreed to pay S$5.1 million in legal fees to WongPartnership. It said: "In these circumstances, it is difficult to come to a conclusion that this is not a fee that a reasonable practitioner can in good faith charge or receive. When the interested parties have agreed freely to a reduction... the practitioner should not, except in egregious cases, be accused of overcharging."

There will be a court conference on July 11 for the Law Society's application.